Blog by Steve Laug
My brother Jeff picked up a beautiful old Meerschaum pipe when he was in Austin, Texas. There was something about the old pipe that caught his eye and he wanted it. The patina of age was forming around the claws and the egg. The feathers on the bottom of the foot that held the claws was also colouring nicely. The browns of a well smoked meerschaum were changing the shadows around the bowl of the pipe. The shank also showed some signs of the colourng. It was almost a meerschaum collar out of which the feather foot extended. The cross hatched look of skin extended beyond the collar on the sides of the shank and the small claw held the bowl at the back. The bowl blackened but the cake was scraped clean other than a slight buildup around the top portion of the bowl. The rim was blackened with tars and there was some road rash on the top right side of the bowl toward the front. The tip of one of the feathers holding the claw on the front of the bowl also had a small chip but it had coloured like the rest of the feathers so it was blended in. The pipe itself was an old timer that was clear. The anomaly for me is that it should have had an amber stem. There is no way a pipe this age would have had a Lucite stem. The yellow Lucite stem looked that it had been adapted from a free hand pipe. The end had been drilled out to hold a replacement push tenon. It was set deep in the stem. The stem also had been counter sunk to cover the replacement threaded mortise in the shank. Instead of trimming it off to be flush with the end of the shank it stuck out about 1/8 of an inch or more. The stem maker had drilled the end of the stem so that with the tenon threaded in and the stem pushed into the mortise it would hide the mortise extension. The airway in the stem was pretty clogged and had blackened with tars. The stem had served the previous owner well. To my eye it just did not go with the either the age or the look of the pipe. It looked like two centuries had collided and joined to very different generations together with this stem and bowl. The shank itself was clean though the tars had stained the tenon. The airway in the shank was open and clean. It was as if someone had cleaned out the inside of the shank and bowl before putting the pipe up for sale at the antique shop. There were signs also that the bowl itself had been wiped down on the outside as the colouration bore signs of scratching from scrubbing the exterior with something like ScotchBrite pads. There were a lot of scratches and scrapes around the rim edges. Fortunately whoever had cleaned it had not removed too much of the patina. This pipe deserved some tender loving care to bring it back to life and restore the appearance to more of its stately form. The stem would definitely have to go and in its place an amberoid or amber coloured Lucite stem would have to be shaped to take its place.
I called Tim West at JH Lowe to talk with him about ordering a stem and what would look best with this old timer. Tim suggested a tortoise shell amber Lucite stem. He said the chocolate swirls in the material would look good with the patina of the old meer and as the bowl darkened more would continue to look good. I gave him the dimensions that I was hunting for and ordered a tapered stem. As usual Tim was quick in getting the materials I ordered shipped to me. It did not take long for it to arrive. I knew that it would be longer than I wanted and would need to be cut down and shaped but the colour would be perfect.
I got home from work on Monday to find Tim’s package had arrived. I opened it and took a picture of the new stem blank, the stem that I was retiring and the old bowl. You can see from the photo below that it is about an inch longer than the previous stem. The taper shape should work well with the pipe. Lots of drilling and shaping will need to be done before it fits the shank well. I am pretty limited in terms of a shop – no saws or power tools to make things simpler so I am left to resort to doing things by hand. I measured the length of the stem that I wanted and use a small hacksaw to cut off the excess stem material. Once it was removed I faced the newly cut end on my topping board to smooth it out and square it off. This is the hard way to do things I know but with careful attention to the verticality of the stem it is possible to get a smooth surface that is square to the shank end.
The push tenon and mortise was smaller than any that I had in my stash so I removed the push tenon from the old stem. It was not difficult to do as it was threaded and could be unscrewed. The mortise was threaded into the shank but extended beyond the end of the shank. I would need to sand that smooth and bevel it inward to give a good fit to the new stem. I took the next two photos below to show the two stems side by side and give an idea of the length.
With the length cut and the surface faced it was now time to start the drilling. I needed to drill the airway in the new stem to accommodate the diameter of the push tenon. Once it was drilled I would be able to thread it with a tap. The airway would also need to be drilled a second time to receive the collar on the tenon and give a flush fit with the stem end. I set up my cordless drill with a small drill bit to begin with and then worked up to the one that was the correct size for the tenon. I used a larger bit to countersink the end of the stem to take the collar on the tenon. The photo below shows the roughed in drilling of the stem. I would still need to clean up the edges of the countersink and also the roughness of the area that I would be using the tap on. I used needle files to bring the countersink into round, smooth out the edges and the airway. When I had finished with the airway I screwed the tenon into place and used a Dremel and sanding drum to begin smoothing out the mortise insert. I sanded the end of the mortise insert by hand to bring it to the same height as the rest of the shank end. I cleaned up the area around the tenon so that when I put the two pieces together I would have a pretty flush fit. I took the next photo to show the initial fit of the tenon in the stem. More sanding would need to be done to make the inner edges clean on the countersink. I pushed the stem into the mortise and took the photos below to have a look at the new stem and its fit on the pipe. There was still a gap in between the stem and the shank – it showed light so more work would need to be done to bring it flush against the shank. The overall look of the new stem worked for me. I like the tortoise shell look of the stem with the patina of the meer.
I carefully scraped the bowl with a pen knife to remove the small cake that was present in the bowl. It was more of a ridge than a full cake so I wanted to smooth out the sides of the bowl. I used the knife to begin the bevel on the mortise insert at this time as well. I would need to give it more of a slope to accommodate the tenon but it was getting there. I inserted a pipe cleaner in the stem and set up my heat gun. (I set it up on top of the dryer in our laundry room so forgive the socks and dishtowels in the background. I held the stem about 5 inches above the heat so that Lucite would not bubble (it did even at this height). When it was flexible I bent it to the same angle as the previous stem using an old rolling pin that I saved for this purpose. It took several time of heating it to get the angles correct so that the bend of the stem would match the curves of the bowl.
With the fit of the stem and the bend roughed in it was time to work on the stem itself. The sharp edges of the taper and the thick button would need to be sanded and shaped. I would also need to get rid of the bubbles that happened when I heated and bent the stem. I started with emery cloth to quickly shape the button and take down the sharp edges. I also thinned the stem with the emery cloth and worked on the sides of the taper. I sanded it with 220 grit sandpaper to smooth out and further shape it and then followed up with a medium and fine grit sanding sponge.
I cleaned up the mess left behind by the stem sanding and worked on the scratches in the meer bowl and the heavy build up on the rim. I used 1500-2400 grit micromesh to sand the rim and the area of road rash on the top of the bowl at the right side. I also sanded the scratches along the claws to clean up the mess that had been left behind. I was careful to no sand too much so as to keep the patina intact.
I scrubbed the bowl and rim with a cotton pad and saliva to remove some of the grime and dirt left behind on the bowl. I used a sharp Buck Knife to clean up the bevel of the mortise insert so that the stem would fit snugly against the shank. I sanded and polished the stem with micromesh sanding pads- wet sanding with 1500-2400 grit pads and then dry sanding with 3200-4000 grit pads. I wiped the stem down with a little Obsidian Oil to give the final 6000-12000 grit micromesh pads traction in the final polishing.
I buffed the stem with Blue Diamond polish on the wheel and then gave it a light coat of carnauba wax. I hand waxed the bowl with carnauba and buffed it with a microfibre cloth to raise the shine. The finished pipe is shown in the photos below. I definitely like the look with the new tortoise shell stem. It just seems to fit the age of the bowl better than the free hand stem that came with it. Thanks for looking.